Half Cousin is an uncommonly appropriate name for an outfit specialising in taking distantly related musical fragments and weaving them together.
Yet is it a one-man band? Certainly the moniker would not exist without Kevin Cormack, who brings said disparate elements together – nor Jimmy Hogarth, who adds a touch of coherence in the production.
musicOMH spoke to Cormack, an Orcadian living in London who writes vividly on subjects concerning his home country.His soft yet pronounced accent is perhaps a reflection of his personality as we talk. “I’ve been in London now for about six years. There is still the impression given that I’m living in Orkney and I still do go back – all my family are there still – but since I’ve been doing this Half Cousin stuff I’ve been in London, and Jimmy (Hogarth), he’s got a studio in London.”
Cormack seems to thrive on the marked difference between the two environments. “It’s great to go back because it’s such a contrast. I’ve lived away from Orkney before, in Dundee, Glasgow and a couple of other places when I’ve been at college. Then I went back to Orkney for a couple of years before moving to London, so I’ve been used to going between the mainland, as they say, and Orkney. It’s great when you go back because it’s really the opposite of London, and it’s good for a wee recharge of course!”
Half Cousin’s musical style is such that each song contains a whole collage of different sounds that somehow come in at the right place – not necessarily as a result of concentrated planning but in a way that works spontaneously. Cormack seems happy with this observation. “It’s nice that that comes across, as there is quite a lot of time spent on arrangement and everything else, and there’s a balance that results in the shambolic elements to it staying there but fitting in. I like leaving things to come in half way through a song, and I’m interested in the dynamics of song arrangements.”
Iodine is the second Half Cousin album, following The Function Room. It wasn’t always an easy process for its author, as Cormack confesses. “It took me a couple of years because I was constantly working on stuff as I had been before Function Room. I have a lot of sketches and recordings on tapes, four-tracks and stuff, and certain things hang around for a while. I tend to work on something and then leave it, get a bit of distance from it, then go back as it suggests different ideas then. It takes a long time but feels quite organic, as if something gets a bit stuck then it’s fine to just leave it. So there are a lot of bits and pieces.”
He continues. “I’ve had a lot of ideas kicking around for four years or so, and they’re constantly being recycled and added to. When we came to do Iodine though and Jimmy came in, I presented him with a scrapheap of different things. He sees the objective, and he hears things and goes “why not try this idea, or that song”.”
“It’s good to hear some banging techno on the go!” – Half Cousin’s Kevin Cormack illustrates an open musical mind.
Orkney played a big part in the composition of Function Room, and it seems Iodine is cut from the same cloth. “It was – if anything even more so than Function Room, as London still felt quite fresh to me at the time. I think the album feels like it has more Orkney storytelling, and there are songs on it that I had been trying to make for a while – Big Chief and Absentee especially have more of an Orkney feel to them. In a sense it feels like I’ve gone backwards with the Orkney stories, but that’s the period of my life I’m working through – Dundee, Glasgow and Orkney.”
Being used to the flats of East Anglia and having hardly ventured north of Edinburgh, it seems a good point for me to ask Cormack about his home country. “It’s quite different from Northern Scotland which is quite barren but also heathery. Orkney is a quite fertile, green and hilly. It’s sheltered by the Old Man of Hay, and I love the rolling green of the place.”
And musically? “My experiences in Dundee and Glasgow were more rock based, with Orkney it’s much more traditional folk. Loads of young people in Orkney are into the fiddle and the accordion, and there’s a lot of reinterpretation of the old traditional tunes – jigs, reels, and energetic pub sessions. Yet on the other side musically there’s heavy rock and metal sitting quite happily together with covers bands!”
While Cormack takes elements of folk music into the Half Cousin mix, he’s less convinced about whether folk music as a whole is finding a new audience. “I’m not so sure because the kind of folk music termed as ‘folktronica’ sounds more like softer rock to me; it’s more New York-inspired. It seems more rock orientated, as if someone’s taken that, gone acoustic and maybe added some beats. I don’t think of myself as belonging to that grouping or style.”
Half Cousin’s musical versatility is perhaps best illustrated in the range of remixers chosen for Absentee, the first single from Iodine. Among them are Justus Koehncke, whom Cormack has admired for some time. “I’ve been a fan of JK for a few years now, I heard his Spiral album from a friend, and cover versions he’d done on a cheap Casio keyboard with this deep German voice singing things like Neil Young, Wichita Lineman, Nobody Does It Better and stuff like that. It was very sincerely done and presented and I was really into that kind of stripping down. I was really chuffed to hear he’d be doing a remix. It’s good to hear some banging techno on the go!”
Also on remix duties was Zero 7‘s Ingrid Eto. “I was quite surprised at that mix”, muses Cormack, “I was expecting an Air-style track but it’s an infectious electronic groove. And then there’s the Fujiya and Miyagi remix that is a nice antidote, I like the quirky clarinet they’ve done with it.”
Cormack approves of the concept of remixing. “I think it was great to see them gain in popularity, and remember Brian Eno saying that it’s about having raw material for reinterpretation. I like the idea of it.” Has that led him to try his hand at the craft? “Yes, I’ve done one! I did one for Irisidus a couple of years ago. They did a kind of nun’s reinterpretation of their track and I made up a song over the top of it. There was no computer, just a four track and an accordion. I’ve been working on remixing old stuff lately though, with some old tapes I’ve found of an old instrumental, and I’m really enjoying it.”
Of other people’s music, Cormack says, “I’m enjoying Panda Bear‘s album at the moment. I’ve never really gotten into the Animal Collective, I like a few of their songs, but I really like this one. When I was in Portugal for a week in the summer I listened to this every day. Mostly I listen to old stuff though – Birthday Party, Gene Pitney and such.”
And with that our time is up – but Cormack sounds energised and focused as he looks to his next project. An Orcadian in London doesn’t sound like such a strange prospect after all.